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Charter school money enters the California Governor’s race

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I have mixed feelings about charter schools, of which there are several here in Oakland. Our former Mayor, Jerry Brown (who’s now California’s governor), favored them. That had some influence on my thinking. On the other hand, I worry about their effect on public schools. My mom was a junior high school teacher in New York City. I am the product of public schools. Free public education, funded by taxpayers, has been a backbone of American democracy since the 1800s. Charter schools threaten that tradition, and there also are questions about the propriety of using tax dollars to fund what are essentially unregulated, or under-regulated, private entities.

So dire is the threat of charter schools to public schools that a recent academic paper warned: Unfettered expansion of the [charter] schools…could further drain the educational resources of these [Black and Latino] communities, creating conditions even worse than those in the Jim Crow-like era.” California already has given $2.5 billion in tax dollars and subsidies to charter schools for school buildings, “thereby drain[ing] these resources away from already underfunded traditional public schools serving poor minority students.”

Inner city schools are suffering from lack of funding for infrastructure, maintenance, books, equipment and teacher salaries. The wholesale transfer of public funds to private charter schools could bankrupt our public education system if it continues unchecked.

Charter schools may seem like an obscure issue to most people, but they’ve popped up into California’s increasingly bumptious 2018 Governor’s race. The few Republicans who are running generally favor charter schools over public schools, but it’s virtually impossible for any Republican to get elected in Blue California; and given the peculiarities of California election law, no Republican may even appear on the top two ballot slots this November (although that could change). Among Democrats, the race is boiling down to two contenders, Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villagairosa. Both men this week began airing T.V. ads. Newsom leads by a substantial margin, in both the polls and campaign funds.

The policy differences between Newsom and Villaraigosa are not stark, which leaves each trying to figure out how to distinguish himself from his opponent. One fault line that has opened up is charter schools. Villaraigosa has become the pro-charter school Democrat. His campaign has received a boost with millions in donations from pro-charter activists and independent expenditure committees working on their behalf; he says he supports “public charters” as a way to “incubate best practices.” Villaraigosa been “strongly endorsed” by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, whose president recently warned that, if elected, “Newsom would…inflict major harm on our schools.”

Newsom, meanwhile, has been endorsed by the California Teachers Association, which views charter schools as a direct threat and has launched a vigorous campaign against them, accusing charter schools and “a group of billionaires” that owns or supports them of having “a coordinated agenda…to divert money from California’s neighborhood public schools to privately-managed charter schools.”

It’s not known exactly how much money either group—the charter school advocates or the teachers’ unions—is pumping into the campaign. And whatever it is, it will go up in the next months. The Los Angeles Times reported that Netflix owner Reed Hastings, a pro-charter school billionaire who has been on the board of the California Charter Schools Association, personally contributed $7 million to Villaraigosa, an amount Newsom called “a rather jaw-dropping amount of money.”

Newsom’s position on public education has been consistent over the years, but Villaraigosa himself has undergone such a radical transformation that the L.A. Times reported how he “went from a union organizer to a union target” when, after “launch[ing] his political career…as a union organizer,” he “blasted the city’s [Los Angeles] teachers union…as the largest obstacle to creating quality schools.”

 It’s an interesting discussion, and probably the answer to the charter-public school conundrum is to find the right balance between both—one that allows charter schools to experiment and innovate, while protecting public schools, especially in poorer neighborhoods, from being eviscerated.

Politically, I think Newsom has the momentum and talent to win this race, not only the primary in June, but the general election in November. But a ton of money is likely to be expended between now and then, with pro-teachers union and pro-charter school interests throwing millions of dollars into the campaign. As Capital Public Radio, in Sacramento, noted, Hastings’ $7 million gift to Villaraigosa is “the first sign that the big money is starting to move” in the election cycle.

With the backing of the teachers union, in addition to the California Nurses Association, the Service Employees International Union, the California Labor Federation and other large, powerful groups, Newsom’s fundraising lead and get-out-the-vote efforts appear to be secure. Moreover, he’s far better known statewide than Villaraigosa, and celebrated in liberal circles for his early championing of same-sex marriage when he was San Francisco’s mayor, 14 years ago. More recently, he’s cemented his popularity on the Left by strongly taking on the National Rifle Association.

If Newsom chooses to make supporting public schools a central issue of his campaign, he would do well to remind voters that, in siding with charter schools, Villaraigosa has aligned himself with the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Education Secretary and a strong proponent of for-profit private charter schools. DeVos is one of the least popular of Trump’s Cabinet members; in a Politico poll, she scored 28% favorable and 40% unfavorable. Moreover, the recent wave of teacher strikes across Red states has demoralized and frightened Republicans, and encouraged not only union supporters but a wide swathe of the American public, who see public school teachers as selfless, underpaid public servants. A 2017 poll found that “among the general public, support for charters is down to 39 percent from 51 percent last year [2016],” with only 34% of Democrats supporting them. So it’s clear that, for Democrats, there are few political risks in limiting charter schools and supporting public schools, and rampant risks in inordinately supporting the charters.

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